Back of Beyond: Tom Kruse, the Birdsville Track postman

captureBirdsville might be the most remote town in Queensland but it has a mystique of its own and is one of the most well-known places in the outback. The annual races and now the Big Red Bash attract thousands every year. Birdsville is 1600km from Brisbane, Adelaide is slightly closer at 1500km and the road from South Australia, the Birdsville Track, was perhaps most responsible for creating the legend of Birdsville. The story of the Track and one man who used it was the subject of a famous film in the early 1950s called “Back of Beyond”. That film was an unexpected hit and a national favourite for many years. It made stars of the Track and of Australia’s own “Tom Cruise”, though in his case it was spelt Tom Kruse and he was an outback postman who pre-dated Cruise by many years.

Kruse’s story is told in “Mailman of the Birdsville Track” (2003) by Kristin Weidenbach. Weidenbach introduces herself as “the daughter of the chief Badger restorer Neil Weidenbach”. The Badger was a Leyland truck which Kruse used to deliver the mail along the Birdsville Track.

The film Back of Beyond is worth checking out. The plummy narrator tells of how the bush postie grinds his way through the desert, his truck filled with necessities and news for the Outback. The rough track is covered in sandhills and passengers need to get out and place iron sheets (left there for this purpose) under bogged tyres to enable the Badger to escape. It revs in circles to speed up and climb over the tricky sandhills.

It’s one of many memorable scenes and Kruse’s battered hat and craggy face is unmissable. Kruse spent just 20 of his 96 years as the Birdsville postie but this was the role that defined him. Kristen Weidenbach met Kruse through her father. Still spry into his eighties, Kruse was an inveterate talker and held an astonishing memory of his life.

Born in 1911 in a family of 12 children at Waterloo, 120km north of Adelaide, Kruse left school at 13 and did odd jobs, getting valuable lessons in bush repairs and mechanical improvisation. In the Depression he moved 200km north to Yunta on the Barrier Hwy where he worked for his uncle as a mechanic. He then got a job with carter Harry Ding, hauling livestock, wheat and wool.

Ding owned Northern SA mail runs and successfully bid for the Marree-Birdsville route in 1935. The two towns were linked by the Birdsville Track, a dry, lonely and ill-defined cattle trail. Founded in the 1880s to move stock from the Channel Country to southern markets, the Track was “500 kilometres of blinding sunlight glinting off orange gibber stones, eerie desert darkness and palpable silence”. It was also full of flies, choking dust storms and sand that clogged air filters. 

Kruse was Ding’s most competent driver and the natural for the new role. Ding proposed a one week route every second week: three days north, one day in Birdsville and three days back. In the off weeks there were other jobs. Kruse had never driven the Track before he started in a six-wheeled Leyland Cub in 45 degree heat on New Year’s Day 1936. The new service was a threat to the Afghan cameleers that dominated the supply of goods along the route (though the mail had always gone by horse). Kruse carried the mail and five passengers, three who clung on top of the load.

The Track passed windswept sandhills and hard claypans and was often merely two faint tyre trails requiring local knowledge to decipher. After camping at Cooper Creek, day two saw the first of the fearsome sandhills at Ooroowillanie. Kruse used coconut matting to lay on the sand to glide over them. At the bottom of the hill, the passengers got off, Kruse laid down the matting, reversed the truck and charged at the dune. Halfway up it slid off the mat and he had to start again. It took several goes to get over the top and the mats were torn to shreds.

He arrived in Birdsville in flurry of excitement with townsfolk keen to see their fortnightly mail and the new truck. They read their mails and constructed replies for Harry to take home the following day, with more passengers for the journey.

The first journey was mechanically trouble-free but it didn’t take long for the desert to take its toll. On the second trip a universal joint snapped forcing him to walk 9kms to a station, then 45km by horse and foot to another where he borrowed a Dodge to complete the run. The Cub was stuck for weeks awaiting parts. While out of action he used Ding’s 1934 Ford which twisted an axle in the middle of nowhere. With no radios, Ding eventually found out Kruse had not reached Birdsville and sent a mission to find them at Goyder Lagoon. After that they set up the trucks with radios to report progress.

Kruse got used to the conditions but in the wet season a one-week trip could take six when the rivers rose and cut the track. At these times Kruse used two vehicles one on either side of the Cooper Creek and a boat to ferry cargo between the two. In 1936 Ding bought the Leyland Badger and in 1939 it was improved with a gearbox and rear axle from an abandoned Thorneycroft which improved performance in the sand. It lacked was brakes, a “decorative accessory” in the desert.

Kruse and the overladen Badger were famous on the Track by 1942. He was 27 and married to Valma, whom he courted for five years, Ding made him Marree manager and the couple set up home there. Valma accompanied him on the Birdsville run, sleeping in the open, until the birth of their first daughter in 1943. The road improved but iron sheets were still needed to traverse bigger sandhills. When coming from the west, there was a near-vertical drop from the top so Kruse had to be at the right speed to slide down the eastern side.

At the half way point, Mungerannie Gap, the country changed from sandhills to the pebbly gibber plains of the Sturt Stony Desert. Kruse called it a never-ending paddock of marbles, constantly jolting and shuddering through flying stones. They caused numerous punctures fixed with a hand pump that took 1000 strokes to get to pressure.

In 1947 Kruse bought the mail run from Ding. But the years that followed were flood years and it was almost impossible to make money while the Cooper Creek was up, often for six months. Instead of one vehicle and one or two men, Kruse needed three men and two vehicles. By 1951 and the third year of flood Kruse had enough and offered the mail run to another man while he started a dam-sinking business (though he didn’t sell the run until 1963). The track quality was improving and a new four-wheel Blitz was more suited to the desert terrain than the six-wheelers of Kruse’s era. The Badger became Kruse’s runabout.

A year later filmmaker John Heyer, working for the Shell Film Unit, arrived in the outback to make a film about “the spirit of Australia”. The Maree-Birdsville mail run was ideal for his project. It was a heavily scripted docu-drama and the mailman represented all the hard-working pioneers of the inland. When Heyer met Kruse he knew he was the man to play the role.

Back of Beyond was filmed in 1952 and Kruse had to bring the Badger. Heyer and a ten person crew left Marree in four 4WD vehicles carrying generators, radios, wind machines and three months of food.  They recreated many hazards of the mail run, filming a dust storm using an old aeroplane engine with a huge propeller at Etadunna station. They had Kruse fall out of the boat on the creek crossing, a hazardous undertaking as he could not swim.

In the most famous scene, Kruse dances with a dressmakers’ dummy on the banks of the Cooper, doffing his hat to his imaginary partner. Though Kruse was not paid for his role, it changed his life. The film premiered in Adelaide in 1954 and was an immediate hit. Though the sound tapes were scratched in the desert and actors overlaid the voices of Kruse and others, he and Valma (who also appeared briefly, calling him in for dinner) loved it when it finally played in Marree, to great applause and laughter.

The critics loved it too. The Sydney Morning Herald called it an Australian masterpiece in “an environment that will not compromise with man”. Shell toured the film across Australia and it packed out halls. Schools borrowed it and a generation was mesmerised by the Australian desert and envied Kruse his lifestyle (which ironically he changed by then). By 1960 more people had seen Back of Beyond than any other Australian film.

The young Queen Elizabeth saw it on her Royal Yacht in 1954. She was so impressed she added Kruse to the New Year’s honours list and he became Tom Kruse MBE in 1955. His new dam-sinking career was just as arduous and required many months at a time on the road. After innumerable breakdowns and bush repairs, the Badger was still used as a water truck but in 1958 it met its end at Pandie Pandie station in north-east South Australia. The engine was dead but the tray was still useful and the truck became a platform to store fuel drums in the field. The Badger slowly sunk to the ground, abandoned to its fate.

The family moved from Marree to Adelaide in the 1960s though Tom still roamed the inland working on dams. He retired in 1984 aged 70. Two years later SA celebrated 150 years and planned a ride from Port Augusta to Birdsville. It included a reenactment of the mail run with Kruse driving a 1950s style Chevy Blitz. Kruse suggested the crew check out the Badger while in the area.

The reenactment involved 80 vehicles. After getting to Birdsville they went back 50km to Pandie Pandie and found the Badger next to an abandoned Cub vehicle. The Badger was a wreck and couldn’t be moved but they rescued the Cub. Kruse believed he could rescue the Badger but was shocked to hear others did it without his knowledge in 1993. A group including Neil Wiesenbach carefully extracted the old truck skeleton and after Kruse got over his shock and disappointment, he joined the loving restoration in Adelaide.

A film crew heard about the project and decided on one last trip in 1999. The film “The Mail Truck’s Last Run” raised funds for the Flying Doctors. An official reenactment convoy left Birdsville for Marree with Kruse driving and camped at the Cooper for an auction to raise money and a screening of Back of Beyond. The Badger was not up to the full journey, making most of it on a truck and wheeled out for key sections such as the entry into Birdsville at 30kph under a banner reading “The Mail Truck’s Last Run”.

The passenger-side door and nameplate were donated to the Birdsville Museum. The rest of the Badger set off for the trip to Marree and drove for three hours before being loaded on the truck. They arrived in Marree to a hero’s welcome and Tom caught up with many he had not seen since 1963. A few days later he drove the Badger to the Adelaide GPO to officially hand it over to the mayor. The Badger ended up in the National Motor Museum at Birdwood in the Adelaide Hills.

Kruse was a celebrity for the remainder of his days. In 2000 he and the Badger were the stars of the National 4 x 4 show in Melbourne. In 2001 there was the long-awaited screening of Last Mail from Birdsville and Wiesenbach’s book came out two years later. He died aged 96 in 2011. In ABC’s report of his death, former governor-general Major-General Michael Jeffery said Kruse had saved many lives during his Outback days. “I think we use the term hero far too frequently when it doesn’t really apply, but I think in this case it does,” he said.